New Civil War Museum Recalls and Evokes Old Divisions and Passions (VA)

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In some parts of the country, the Civil War is still being fought.

And perhaps nowhere are the aftershocks and viewpoints as evident as in Richmond, where a new museum is attempting to tell the history of the war from three angles. That would be: the Union, the African American and the Confederate.

The American Civil War Center, which opens today, argues that each of the three had distinct ideas about freedom -- and few would challenge that. Its inaugural 10,000-square-foot exhibition, "In the Cause of Liberty," suggests that in this complicated story there were more lines crossed than the military ones. Each side was passionate. Each found justification for its goals in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Each suffered many casualties.

"There are three big ideas -- the War for Home, the War for Union and the War for Freedom. Some of these concepts bumped into one another, creating more tensions. What we are trying to do is model a discussion, rather than shouting about the points of view," says H. Alexander Wise Jr., the museum president who is a former state historical preservation officer for Virginia and the descendant of a Confederate general. The museum is run by a private foundation based in Richmond.

The reaction of African Americans to the concepts ranges from outrage to open-mindedness.

"This is ridiculous. Number one, it puts villains on the same plane as American heroes, Lincoln and Douglass," says Raymond Boone, former editor of the Richmond Afro-American newspaper. "When you start celebrating the Confederacy, you are talking about terrorists. It is normal to celebrate a just cause. It is abnormal to celebrate a losing and unjust cause."

John Fleming, the vice president for museums of the Cincinnati Museum Center and the president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, was recruited as an adviser. He praises the center for putting the African American story on center stage and says he learned a lot about the Confederacy. "I never came to agree with their goals for war because their goals would have kept black people in slavery. I came to understand why they fought for home and liberty, as they understood it. That was a big jump on my part," he says.

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